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Small-business group holds how-to on getting started with larger contracting agencies

Some approaches taken by small businesses yield better results than others when looking to gain contracts with larger entities, according to speakers gathered Friday by the North San Diego Small Business Development Center.

The business development group brought the speakers -- including those from government agencies, large regional corporations and prime contractors -- to the San Diego Gas & Electric Energy Innovation Center, where small-business representatives met them and listened to tips on how to maximize their business opportunities with them.

The program was called "Meet the Buyers." According to North San Diego SBDC, the 2013 version of the same event helped small businesses obtain $11 million in contracts.

A popular tip among the group of guest panel speakers was the recommendation that small businesses learn about the agency or prime contractor they're looking to court, including how they try to attract certain small-business groups, such as disadvantaged and disabled veteran business enterprises.

The panel included Elaine Richardson of the San Diego Association of Governments, Erica Beal of SDG&E, Deanna Andrews of Sundt Construction, Rochelle Lowe of Leidos Inc., Karen Linehan of San Diego Unified School District and Wayne Gross of California's Department of General Services.

Cheryl Brown, a consultant with the North San Diego SBDC since 2007, said the average time needed for small businesses to build their relationships with new "buyers" to land procurement is six to 12 months.

It can sometimes seem like a lot of trouble, she said, from getting paperwork in order to registering the company as a certified small business or one of the many subgroups.

But the patience is worth the effort, she said.

"We have to make sure we do what they need to get set up," Brown said.

Knowing the difference between the business certifications desired by an agency or company being courted is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the process, said Gross, who is the customer service liaison with the state Department of General Services' Office of Small Business and Disabled Veteran Business Enterprises.

He recalled a first-time encounter with a small-business owner who opened the conversation by introducing her company as woman-owned. That her business was woman-owned didn't matter to him from a contracting standpoint, though, since the state DGS doesn't set benchmarks for that type of business.

At agencies that contract for jobs paid for with federal money, as do SANDAG and Caltrans, such identification could have an effect, since federal government contracts seek out companies qualified as disadvantaged business enterprises.

A good starting point, the speakers agreed, is for small-business owners to become certified as such, and go on to certify themselves in any subgroups they may fit.

But once in the door with an agency or prime contractor, it's important to maintain the relationship, Andrews said.

"Respond to the invitation," Andrews said, calling on her observance that sometimes the business owners she meets through networking and informational events don't follow through after the ice has been broken.

"We've sent out invitations for various things we've needed on the airport project, the rental car center," Andrews added. "People haven't responded, and they're small businesses. One responded, saying, 'I’ll get you a quote' -- never sent it to us. So we ended up having to go outside, and look for somebody else that wasn't a small business."

As most proposal requests will draw numerous bids, Beal said that at a company like SDG&E, which seeks competitive proposals for a wide range of products and services, the chances of landing a job increase with persistence.

She also said that when a proposal is declined, business owners should request a rebuttal so they can learn what kept them from getting the job.

"Those are services that we provide," Beal said. "Our contract agents can meet one on one to counsel and guide you. I will tell you, a lot of people do not take advantage of that."

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